The knock-out stages of the Fifa World Cup are like one of those Russian Banya massages. What appears at the outset to be something that should be quite pleasurable and good for your wellbeing is soon overtaken by the reality of lying naked on a slab in a stifling hot cubicle as two large, half-naked Russian men beat you with oak branches.
There are no second chances in the knock-out stages and most teams tend to adjust their approach in recognition of this bald reality. Hardly surprising either, given there is just the one prize for losing a game of football at this stage of the tournament: A minimum four year wait for the next one. The more adventurous football of the group stages tends to be replaced by a much more cagey and reticent brand, compounded by an increase in intensity and the emergence of human emotions such as desperation and fear.
And then there is the disparity of talent amongst international teams. If a club football side is lacking in talent then there is the option of finding a Russian Oligarch or an Icelandic Bank to buy a more competitive team. But international football is dictated by passports, and Russian Oligarchs and Icelandic Banks cannot buy passports. Well, not legally anyway. So the World Cup knock-out phase often features sides whose principle aim is to prevent the more talented ones from scoring. This can result in fairly dire watching over 90 minutes for most viewers, with the added bonus of an extra 30 minutes of much the same as the restricted team desperately seeks passage through to the penalty shoot-out, which suddenly evens things up markedly. In fact, the 30 minutes of extra time can often be even worse than the first 90, as the more talented sides are by this time beaten into such a state of submission that they pretty much give up and start looking towards the shoot-out with the same enthusiasm as the rest of us. These shoot-outs then instantly assault the viewer with such drama that it violently shakes them awake from the slumbering stupor of the previous two and a half hours, much like the bucket of iced water tossed over you at the conclusion of your Banya massage.
I prefer the group stages and the football it produces. But I am not suggesting that knock-out football is inferior to group stage football. It is just different. Different sides have differing talent, different strengths, different weakness and different game plans. And these differences become more amplified when sudden death football enters the equation. None of us can expect every World Cup game to be a belter, and while the knock-out football is often more difficult for the neutral to watch or to appreciate, we all just have to learn to deal with that. Or change the channel.
And besides, when knock-out football is good, it is very good. Just think of all the great and dramatic World Cup matches that you remember most, then ask yourself: How many of the these matches were played in the group stages?
The arrival of the knock-out stages also marks a significant turning point for me during every World Cup tournament. It is when I start to become depressed. It is the realisation that, despite the tournament only being half over in calendar time, there is actually not that much of it left. I even warn myself against this every four years – remember next time that at the end of the group stages 48 games have been played and just 16 remain. But four years on, seduced by the excitement and the gluttony of the first fortnight, I always forget this. And last Thursday I looked at my various sheets of paper and was suddenly struck numb by the realisation that just 16 matches remained in the tournament. 16! For goodness sake, I had just watched that number over the previous four nights, but now my various sheets of paper were telling me that paltry number was all that remained. So gloom instantly set in at this point. It is the thought that after just 16 further games this World Cup will be over and the long 3 year 11 month haul to the next one will begin over once more. And when you reach my age, there is an added fear factor as well – will I even make it to the next one? Perhaps these last paltry 16 games represent the full and final extent of my World Cup lifetime. And it is worse this time: Because of the heat in Qatar the next World Cup will be played in December instead of June/July, meaning an even longer wait and a heightened chance of not successfully surviving life’s qualification process.
Still, it was nice to have a day off. Even if I spent it feeling depressed.
I did not really know quite what to expect when the football recommenced on Sunday morning. But I guess this is one of the beauties of the World Cup: Nobody really knows what is about to happen, or what is not about to happen. We all just have to wait and see what unfolds.
One thing I certainly did not expect to see was a thrilling game between France and Argentina. France, yes, but Argentina? This Argentine side was in trouble and the usual response from an Argentine side in trouble is a reset to combat mode. But Kylian Mbappes’s astonishing 70 metre run split Argentina and the game wide open early on and set the tempo for a game which pulsated in a manner that meant it would live long in the memories of those who saw it. A seven-goal thriller was an unexpected but most welcome start to the knock-out phase of Russia 2018. But what of France? A team that arrived with so much talent, pace and youth that much was expected of it. And this was undoubtedly its best performance of the tournament. But France drifted in and out of this game in a fashion that, while unquestionably explosive, made it difficult to decide whether it was good enough to push the start button when it needed to or not consistent enough to dominate crunch games for long periods. I guess we will all eventually find out the answer to this question. And it should be fun.
The second game on Sunday morning was different but still something of a World Cup classic. Both Uruguay and Portugal are sides that can spend long periods searching for goals. Apologies in advance for the cliche, but this game needed an early goal. And thankfully it got one. And it was a blinder. The ball travelled in seconds across the full width of the pitch twice before Edinson Cavani got on the end of Luis Suarez’s deadly cross with such aerial agility and timing that it looked like something lifted straight out of Cirque du Soleil. It guaranteed a more open encounter, and while this game was still a tough contest, it was also a thoroughly enjoyable one.
Quite a start then. Two excellent games, two winners inside 90 minutes, and 10 goals. And two of the game’s greatest ever players departing a tournament for the last time without that elusive first winner’s medal. Monday could hardly hope to match this. And it would not.
It is difficult to know what to make of Spain’s game against Russia. The home side did not so much come out and park a bus but more an entire tank division. Although played in Moscow, Russians with longer memories would have drifted nostalgically back to the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. Spain, of course, did what Spain always does. It tried to ticky-tacky its way through the Russian lines. Most people I have since spoken with about this game had little to commend it. Not me, I am afraid. I found it absolutely enthralling. Watching those hoards of Spaniards endlessly interchanging neat little passes as they patiently tried to pick the lock in the Kremlin door reminded me of an army of red worker ants in action. Call me sad or deluded, but I found it intoxicatingly hypnotic. So much so that I was both surprised and disappointed when the referee finally called time on it. Russia won the shoot-out and provoked scenes inside and outside of Luzhniki Stadium which I consider one of the highlights of the tournament so far. BBC World reported that the party was still going 24 hours after the game finished. There is bound to be some kind of huge monument erected somewhere in Russia to mark this day. Poor Spain. 1,006 passes for one own goal scored from a cross off a free-kick. Seemed a tad pointless in the end. About the only thing likely to come out of this is the last rites of ticky-tacky.
I will not waste too many lines reflecting on Croatia and Denmark; other than to say it was typical Denmark – incredibly difficult to break down, it featured some wonderful goalkeeping, and was another disappointing performance from one of the earlier form teams of the tournament, Croatia.
Mexico started Wednesday with a flourish but Brazil weathered it and soon took control. It was only another heroic performance from the Mexican goalkeeper Guille Ochoa that kept the score down to 2-0. Brazil looked more fluid for longer periods in this match. In fact, pretty much the only disruption to its rhythm were the number of lengthy stoppages to sort out Neymar’s latest emotional crisis. And there was also a nice symmetry to this outcome – Brazil advancing to its seventh straight quarter-final and Mexico heading home at the Round of 16 stage for the seventh straight time. Nice, unless you happen to be Mexican.
Belgium then produced the comeback of the tournament against Japan in a game of two halves. 0-0 at half-time, then a five goal second-half thriller. And the Belgium comeback quite possibly answered two lingering questions – do the Belgium players have sufficient desire, and does its manager Roberto Martinez have sufficient nous? His clever tactical substitutions definitely made the difference here.
On Thursday, Sweden and Switzerland, in the Battle of the Neutrals, lived up to their political ideals by producing a rather benign game of football. Chances were squandered in a manner that suggested neither side wished to participate in the quarter-finals. How apt then that it should finally be settled by an unintentional deflection. A kind of mistaken decisive outcome. But a most welcome deflection for those of us who bothered to get up and watch this game.
Then England appeared to take on a James Rodriguez-free Colombia. Was it Michael Joseph Savage or Sid Holland who once famously said: Where England goes, drama goes. Another gritty performance in trying circumstances seemed to have been torpedoed at the very last moment, in true England ‘snatch heartbreak from the jaws of celebration’ fashion by yet another Yerry Mina header. All I can say is: Thank God they won the shoot-out. Because England has to be most luckless team in international football, and few others but England finally deserved to get some, And besides, the whinging would have been unbearable.
So what did the first four days of knock-out football at Russia 2018 ultimately produce?
Well, there were some terrific games and some forgettable games, some fantastic football and some average football, some stunning goals and some mistaken goals, some good behaviour and plenty of poor behaviour, and lots of emotion, passion, celebration, heartbreak, high-octane drama and controversial controversy.
In other words, pretty much everything.
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